A Musical Portrait

Ludovico’s Band

Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre

November 17, 2015

Ludovico’s Band (image: ludovicosband.com)

In this final 2015 recital given by a consort notable for the high calibre of its members, the five contributing composers were producing work during England’s Caroline Era, the reign of Charles I which tore the country apart and, in the process, put much of its cultural heritage in peril; not just music, although we tend to slide past these particular decades between the brilliant ferment of Tudor composition and the brief-lived glory of British music that is Henry Purcell.  For this occasion, Ludovico’s Band comprised six instrumentalists, including the extra triple harp of Hannah Lane to partner co-director Marshall McGuire’s instrument, with guest mezzo Sally Anne Russell singing works by Nicholas Lanier and Shakespeare’s known collaborator, Robert Johnson.

The timbre melange for this brief recital, which included purely instrumental music by William Lawes, John  Jenkins and some scraps from John Playford’s Dancing Master compendium, gave top-line honours to Julia Fredersdorff’s violin, with a fellow-string in Ruth Wilkinson’s gamba occupying a supple support role except for a D minor trio sonata by Jenkins where the pair shared the work-load with occasional harp interludes.  But for the most part, plucked instruments dominated, the harps partnered by Tommie Andersson’s alternation between theorbo and lute, Samantha Cohen also employing her theorbo but working through a good part of the night on her guitar.

The result, when all were engaged simultaneously as in the opening D minor Harp Consort by Lawes, No. 4 in the set of the eleven, made a rich tapestry, a generous buzzing brought about by an inevitable arpeggiation when harps and theorbos each play more than one note.  This work’s opening Fantazy saw the melodic burden shared between Fresersdorff and McGuire, both preserving the music’s innate stateliness right through to a noticeably vigorous, if brief, sarabande.  A less generous amplitude came in the same composer’s Duet for lute and harp, Andersson and McGuire handling with seasoned aplomb the work’s three-dance chain, the whole lasting about 4 minutes, with little variety of dynamic inflexion.

Russell’s arrival onstage brought a novel strand to the mix, largely because this singer eschews the peculiar habit adopted by some singers of works a century either side of this period; to wit, aiming for a near-genderless purity with minimal vibrato, an avoidance of dramatic possibilities and a concentration on purity of line – no swooping, no audible breaths, no distinct plosives.   Russell took her four Lanier songs as scenes, the settings of Thomas Carew’s No more shall meads and Mark how the blushful morn infused with a warm vigour of attack, reaching even more intense levels in Campion’s Fire, fire and the vivid bite of Neither sighs, nor tears, nor mourning.  The mezzo entered into each song’s emotional world and, while the effect could be over-pronounced in intensity, the works spoke clearly, each one taking the listener on a short trek as engrossing as a Schubert lied if more reminiscent of an extended recitative than a lilting folk-song.

Johnson’s setting of the Ben Jonson lyric Have you seen but a white lillie grow was the best-known piece on this program, Russell giving two verses and hence a chance to take in her security of pitch at the lyric’s climax and the flexibility of tessitura while her accompaniment was relatively thin with lute and theorbo.  Woods, rocks and mountains, possibly/probably by Shakespeare, also gained from a more direct voice, its Dowland-like downward falls and hopeless repetitions of one note speaking cogently of love’s despair in this interpretation, rather than communicating a well-bred, light soporific depression.

For O let us howl some heavy note, a rough-edged invitation from a madman in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, Russell took relish in the chromatic rises that illustrate the character’s unbalanced state and found plenty of room for near-onomatopoeic imitations as the air moved from ‘beasts and fatal fowl’ to some not-too-quiescent swans greeting their own extinction with placidity.  Even in the benign context of a comfortable evening recital in Melbourne’s salon, this piece holds an uncomfortable force that Russell conveyed with a full-bodied and mobile style of execution.

Concluding with five of the Playford dances, the band again illustrated its elasticity, a wealth of bass strings resonantly rhythmic and, for a bonus, Ruth Wilkinson took up her recorder to cut through the string textures, focusing your attention on the the simple but infectious brio of the tunes on which these players built a rousing harmonic ambience, a window into (musically, at least) more simple and clearer-speaking times.